Thursday, November 3, 2016

Another feature of Tuesday's ballot- school funding

A lot of the election talk centers on the presidential and Senate races here in Wisconsin, but those are far from the only things many of us have to vote on. Among the items on the ballot are a massive number of school referenda, and the Wisconsin Budget Project tallied up the numbers to find that this is very different from recent presidential election cycles (feel free to expand if you need to, in order to read it better).

The Budget Project notes that these large jumps in referenda for 2016 are a direct effect of policies backed by Governor Walker and WisGOP in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan.
The dramatic increase in referendum amounts has two root causes: First, in 2011 state lawmakers significantly reduced state support for public schools and also limited the amount of money school districts were allowed to spend on each student. Since then, lawmakers have allowed either small or no increases in the caps they impose on school district budgets, making it difficult for school districts to absorb rising costs without reducing classroom resources. A Wisconsin Public Radio story describes how the changes in state support are pushing rural school districts to ask for more resources at the ballot box:
“Wisconsin’s rural school districts are increasingly relying on asking voters directly for money in response to the decreasing amount they’re receiving in state funding over the past half decade.

‘It’s kind of the way budgeting is going right now,’ said Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance. ‘Over the last four to five years, that’s the way many of the districts plan their budgeting just because there’s such a shortfall on what the state is providing financially.'”
And another way that districts have lost funding is through the funneling of K-12 money from public schools to vouchers that go to private schools and independent charters. One of the more recent forms of this scam is the Special Needs Voucher (which I talked about in detail last week). That just started this year, has cost public school districts $2.4 million in state aid, and will likely have a higher price tag in the future.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout discussed the Special Needs Vouchers in one her most recent columns, and connected the dots on how it and other voucher programs inevitably lead to more of these referenda.
The families of “Stop Special Needs Vouchers” warned legislators that taking $12,000 per student away from public schools meant less money would be available for special needs students who remained in the district.

I spoke with one local superintendent whose district loses $12,000 per special education student but only received $2,400 in state aid per student. The district’s money goes to Wisconsin Virtual Academy. WVA is operated by K12, Inc. a publicly traded company co-founded by William Bennett former Secretary of Education under President Reagan.

With so much money leaving a district through a variety of private school subsidies, it is hard to balance the budget.

“Why are schools going to referenda? To survive,” the superintendent told me.
And past the simple survival, many district officials are worried about the next shoe to drop from the ALEC crew at the Capitol, and the Wisconsin Budget Project reports that helped explain why I was faced with a referendum question when I voted at the Madison City Clerk’s office on Wednesday.
Another reason for the increase in school district referendums is that some state lawmakers have signaled they want to limit the ability of school districts to ask voters to approve new resources. Earlier this year, lawmakers considered a proposal that would have limited the circumstances under which school districts can go to referendum. That proposal didn’t receive a floor vote, but proposals that are unsuccessful in one legislative session often pop up again later. School board members in at least one district – Madison – specifically pointed to concerns that legislators might limit school district referendum options as a reason to move forward with a referendum now, rather than later.
And that worry over future action, and resulting need to “lock in” the flexibility for funding in future years, was the main reason I voted in favor of the referendum to raise Madison’s revenue limit, with the understanding that we don’t have to accept “taxing to the max” out of those increased figures in any or all of those years.

That was despite an evil side of me that wanted to vote “no” to make things more dire and bring those problems to the public’s attention (however, the WisGOPs want blue-voting areas like Madison to hurt instead of thrive, so that would ultimately be giving those fuckers what they want), and I understand that this will likely drive up my already-sizable property taxes. But ultimately, I recognize that high-quality schools are something that has immense value for a community, and on my home’s value, so I can live with the higher taxes that come with properly funding public schools and living in a better community.

What I do have a right to be furious about is the fact that I have to pay more while billionaire GOP mega-donor Diane Hendricks and other oligarchs pay no state income taxes at all toward this needed talent-generator. I also have a right to be angry that my state taxes are going toward convicted criminal Scott Jensen and the grifters that work for the school voucher lobby, with them contributing next to nothing in return.

And unless we use our votes on November 8 to not just vote for our schools, but also vote out the ALEC crew that has caused all of these referenda to appear, this cycle will never stop. And it must be stopped, if we want this state to stop lagging the rest of the country in the chase for talent.

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